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What I Learned About Being Welsh at the 'Welshfest' Festival in Georgia

It's like St. Patrick's Day, but Welsh and in one tiny town in Georgia.

Photo by Hywell John

As any true Welshman or woman will tell you, Cymro gore y Cymro oddi cartref.

As a Welshman who doesn't speak Welsh, I can reliably translate this as: "The best Welshman is a Welshman away from home"—an interesting concept for national identity if ever there was one. Never before has this classic maxim felt as appropriate as when I visited the Cymru-loving people of Rockmart, Georgia, who every year celebrate WELSHFEST, the generously spirited but perhaps culturally confused festival of Welsh-American heritage.


It turns out most of the people at WELSHFEST didn't speak Welsh either. As such, I was in good company. Together, we were joined on a dynamic mission: to feel how truly Welsh WELSHFEST was; to see if the spirit of Wales could be found in the rural American South, in the town of Rockmart, so named because there was once a lot of rock there that people sold at a mart.

Greg the local historian told me that. Greg was not Welsh, but he loved how Welsh Rockmart was. And looking over the many Welsh flags blowing in the afternoon breeze, I thought: So do I, Greg. So do I.

Photo by Hywell John

But how does one define "Welshness"? And did WELSHFEST have the answer to that most elusive of questions? As I browsed its many stalls of Welsh-themed goods—"Made In America, With Welsh Parts" said one T-shirt (but what parts?)—I came across a diverse array of characters all joined in their desire to promote Wales to the mystified Americas.

As the twang of a suspiciously American-sounding country group echoed around the WELSHFEST site, organizer Karl Welsher told me the main criteria for selecting his Welsh events was that they were "gonna be fun." This seemed noble to me, and definitely Welsh. I can tell you for certain that Welsh people also like having fun. So far, so Welsh.

Photo by Hywell John

And fun those events were. If one day I organize my own WELSHFEST, I too shall blindfold an old lady and demand she judge the quality of the knees of a selection of men in kilts. This section of WELSHFEST was called "Men in Kilts." The judge this year (and every year, I was told) was the very delightful Flossy Ferguson, who sat on the Rockmart Historical Museum front porch like a homecoming queen who's been coming home for maybe 70 years. She asked me if I "had the Welsh tongue." I said, "Sadly not." I asked her who had come up with the idea of "Men in Kilts." Another lady piped in: "Karl did. He's Welsh." So I asked Karl about the knee fondling. He told me he had heard about it from a town in northern Georgia.


More fun could be found on the main lawn, where the annual Welly Wanging contest would soon begin. As the WELSHFEST literature explains: "The premise is blindingly simple… wang [throw] a Wellington boot as far as possible."

Unsure of the Welshness of this event, I again checked in with Karl. He told me his wellies came from a company in Monmouthshire (that's in Wales, folks), and they have a wanging competition there. Inwardly, I thought Karl was probably having a laugh, but sure enough, the Welsh Welly Wanging Open has been drawing in the crowds in Shirenewton since 2012. Confronted by this gap in my Welsh knowledge, I felt embarrassed. If Karl Welsher knows more than me, what do I know? Are my Welsh parts as good as his Welsh parts? And does it really matter?

I decided not to wang a welly and instead retreated to a lonely pavilion to eat two ribs (fairly American). I realized then that the person to guide me through this dilemma was surely Sir Blackwolf, a.k.a. Chris Pugh, self-knighted medieval Welsh archer and keeper of the ancient Cymru spirit. Sir Blackwolf, with his wife Dame Dagryning (a.k.a. Mia Pugh), are the purveyors of Medieval Fantasies.

"We bring the Middle Ages to Life!" while also "teaching the values of Chivalry and Honor," says their leaflet.

I consider these to be the Welshest of Welsh characteristics, so I introduced myself.

"Hello, Sir Blackwolf," I said. "My name is Hywel."


"Excellently well met!" said Sir Blackwolf in a curious accent that seemed to exist somewhere between America and Somerset, as spoken in 1523. I asked Sir Blackwolf if he felt more Welsh or American. "It depends on the day and what I'm doing," he answered, not unreasonably.

Photo by Hywell John

Other WELSHFEST attendees seemed certain that the distance between Wales and America was closer than many would think. Tina Barnes, originally from Holyhead but a long time resident of America, described Wales succinctly: "Virginia, with sheep."

Sir Blackwolf is from Virginia. Maybe there the spirit of Wales can truly be found? I thought. But then I met Esther Stroud, originally from Patagonia, now resident of Georgia, and kitted out in the traditional Welsh women's outfit. Esther, with a rich Spanish accent, sang a Welsh hymn to me and told me how utterly Welsh she felt here in America, with a smile that brought a tear to my eye, making me think of my grandparents as a non-specific feeling of homesickness and vague grief welled up in me, the feeling we Welsh call hiraeth.

Photo by Colter Longshore

Rain began to fall (very Welsh), so I got in my car and flicked through my WELSHFEST program. "Why the Welsh for Rockmart?" it asked on page five. The answer was simple:

And like everyone is Irish on St Patty's Day;

In Rockmart on the third Saturday of March:

Everyone is WELSH.

I looked out on Rockmart's town square and thought that maybe anyone can be Welsh if he or she so wishes. And maybe they can, if that's what makes them feel most at home. Even for a day. Even for a day in Rockmart, Georgia, USA. As I left town, the strains of Nashville-based Welsh singer-songwriter David Llewellyn rang out over the town square to a dwindling crowd.

David had a nice voice, and played country tunes like a true American. Whatever that is.